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Mimeng and ‘Self-Media’ under Attack for Promoting Fake News Stories to Chinese Readers

Chinese ‘zimeiti’ or ‘self media’ have become a topic of discussion after this Mimeng scandal.

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China’s “Queen of Self-media,” Mimeng, is under attack after publishing a story that has been labeled ‘fake news.’ The scandal has triggered discussions on the status-quo of Zimeiti (自媒体/We Media) on the Chinese internet.

It was one of the most-discussed topics on Weibo and WeChat right before the Chinese New Year: the scandal involving Chinese blogging account ‘Mimeng’ (咪蒙), which sparked discussions on Mimeng herself and on the regulation and responsibility of ‘we media’ accounts on the Chinese internet.

Who or what is ‘Mimeng’? First and foremost, Mimeng is an online social media account with an enormous fanbase: 13 million followers on WeChat, 2.6 followers on Weibo.

The person behind the Mimeng blogging account is Ma Ling (马凌), a Chinese female author and Literature graduate who was born in 1976 in Sichuan’s Nanchong.

Over the past few years, ‘Mimeng’ has grown into a so-called ‘we media’ or ‘self media’ platform (zimeiti 自媒体), referring to private, independent, online publishing accounts that get their content across through blogs, podcasts, and other online channels. Mimeng is now more than Ma Ling alone: there’s an entire team behind it.

Mimeng has been controversial for years because of its clickbait titles and controversial stances on various issues. The topics most addressed in Mimeng’s publications are relationships between men and women, love, marriage, quarreling, and extramarital affairs.

Previous articles published by Mimeng, who is a self-labeled ‘feminist’ (and often mocked for it), include titles such as “This Is Why You’re Poor,” “Jealously Means Progress,” “I Love Money, It’s True,” “Men Don’t Cheat for Sex,” or “How to Kill Your Wife.”

Besides its content, there are also other reasons why Mimeng has triggered controversy in the past. The fact that Mimeng charges a staggering amount of money to advertisers, for example, is also something that previously became a topic of discussion – Mimeng allegedly charges some 750,000 yuan ($113,000) for a post mention.

 

SELLING FAKE STORIES

As an influential We Media source, we must take on our social responsibility

 

This time, however, Mimeng is hit by the biggest controversy thus far. The media group is under attack after publishing a story that turned out to be (partly) fabricated. The story was published on a WeChat account called Talented Limited Youth (才华有限青年), which is registered under the same legal entity as Mimeng. Its primary author, according to Sixth Tone, is a former intern of Ma Ling called Yang Yueduo.

The publication in question is a long story titled “The Death of a Top Scorer from a Poor Family” (“一个出身寒门的状元之死”) which allegedly portrayed the short life of the author’s old classmate: a young, bright mind, born in an impoverished family in Sichuan province. In the story, the protagonist did all he could to create a better life for him and his family.

He studied hard, got the best university entrance score of his city, and successfully graduated from university. But despite his efforts to start a life in the big city, he failed to succeed and tragically died of cancer at the young age of 24.

Shortly after publication, the moving and tragic story went viral on social media. However, several details made online readers doubt the story’s authenticity. It did not take long before readers proved that several aspects of the story were indeed untrue.

In light of the fake news allegations, Talented Limited Youth quickly deleted the story from WeChat. They also issued a statement defending the story’s authenticity, explaining that for privacy reasons, various details of the story were altered. According to Beijing News, Talented Limited Youth was then banned from posting on WeChat for 60 days.

In response to the allegations, Mimeng offered its “sincerest apologies” on Weibo on February 1st, saying: “The Mimeng Group has decided to completely withdraw from Weibo and take a two-month break from WeChat. We will use that time to carry out serious and profound self-reflection.” The post continued saying that “as an influential We Media source, we must take on our social responsibility and pass on positive energy and values.”

The announcement went trending under the hashtag “Mimeng Shuts Down Weibo Indefinitely” (#咪蒙微博永久关停#), which has received over 210 million views at time of writing.

 

POISONED CHICKEN SOUP

Mimeng, for you, patriotism is only business

 

On social media, there is a clear divide between those who support and oppose Mimeng. While some are calling for a “complete shutdown” of Mimeng, there are also those who say they will keep on following Mimeng and that they enjoy their publications.

The controversial Mimeng account has even brought about a so-called “Following Mimeng Rate” (含咪率), a number based on how many of your WeChat friends are following Mimeng‘s public WeChat account (by checking Mimeng’s account on WeChat, WeChat users can see how many of their friends are following this account).

Mimeng opposers allege that the more friends you have that follow the Miming account, the more likely you are “to fail in life.”

The official Weibo account of the Jiangsu Public Security’s Bureau of ‘Internet Safety’ (@江苏网警) is also a clear Mimeng opposer. Last week, they lashed out against Mimeng in a post titled “Mimeng, for you, patriotism is only business.”

The post hints at Mimeng’s inconsistent stance on patriotism, and it included screenshots from two earlier Mimeng posts from 2013 and 2016, one in which patriotism is referred to as a kind of “forced love,” and the other one saying: “I’ll love my country forever, its greatness will forever move me to tears.”

The post by the Jiangsu Bureau itself then also blew up on Weibo, with the hashtag “Jiangsu Internet Police calls out Mimeng” (#江苏网警点名咪蒙#) soon gaining over 210 million views. In the comment sections, many people criticize Mimeng for “deceiving people,” “promoting negative values” and “using anything to get clicks.”

One person wrote: “These self-regulated media only care about making money, they have no sense of social responsibility.”

Others said that the fake news story was nothing but ‘poisoned chicken soup’ (毒鸡汤).

This is a term that is often used to describe Mimeng’s content, and that of other self-media accounts, meaning that from the outside, it looks like “feel-good content” or “chicken soup [for the soul]” while it is actually ‘poisonous’ content with a marketing strategy or money-making machine behind it.

 

ZIMEITI CHAOS

Self- media cannot become a spiritual pyramid scheme

 

The Mimeng case has led to discussions in Chinese media on the status of ‘we media’ or ‘self-media’ platforms and their influence.

People’s Daily responded to the Mimeng scandal with a post on February 1st titled “Self-media Cannot Become a Spiritual Pyramid Scheme” (“自媒体不能搞成精神传销”), which argued that unless self-media accounts such as Mimeng actually work on establishing “healthy social values,” their apologies are only a way to temporarily dodge negative public attention.

In late January, Chongqing Internet authorities launched an investigation into 48 ‘self-media’ accounts, suspending two for spreading “fake news.”

State media outlet China News published an article, also this week, that describes ‘self-media’ as a ‘hypermarket’ where publishers will go to extreme measures, such as selling ‘fake news’ for clicks, spreading negative influences and anxiety among the people.

But these discussions are somewhat blurred, as it is not entirely clear what ‘self-media’ actually is in this context. Generally speaking, the term could include any micro-blogger who identifies themselves as ‘self-media’ or ‘we media’ (zimeiti 自媒体). But in the current discussion, it seems to only relate to those publishing accounts that have a certain influence on social media and the (online) media environment, posing a challenge to traditional news outlets.

Some definitions of Chinese ‘we media’ say it is basically is “an umbrella term for self-posted content on social media platforms” (Qin 2016; Jiang & Sun 2017) – this suggests that everyone who is active on WeChat and Weibo or elsewhere is basically in ‘self-media.’

A clearer description is given by Week in China, writing that “zimeiti typically operate as social media accounts run by individuals or as small firms established by a handful of former journalists.”

What makes it different from any other social media account, is that in ‘we-media’ or ‘zimeiti’ “the blogging has been professionalized and that the authors can make a living from it” (WiC 2018). It is a trend that has become especially visible in China’s online environment since 2012-2014.

This highly commercial side of ‘we media’ matters. If a publisher, such as Mimeng, charges advertisers exorbitant amounts of money, they also have to maintain a certain number of readers. They don’t just post as a hobby, it is serious business.

In a highly competitive online media environment, where hundreds of media outlets are fighting over the clicks of China’s online population of over 800 people, clickbait titles have almost become somewhat of a necessity for some of these publishers, with some even resorting to publishing “fake news” to get the attention – and the clicks.

China’s Newsweek Magazine (新闻周刊) calls the situation at hand a “self-media chaos” (自媒体乱象) that poses an “unprecedented challenge” for governing society in the 3.0 era. They call for “healthy development of self-media” and better legislation to control the mushrooming zimeiti, that, despite strong online censorship, are not as tightly controlled as China’s traditional media.

“Nowadays, we have less and less intellectuals, and more and more ‘people selling words.’ The chaos of self-media needs to be controlled,” one commenter on Weibo says (@ZY盒子).

But other people deem that readers themselves should pick what they read instead of authorities regulating it for them: “The important thing is that every reader must have the independence to judge for themselves [what they read]; just let the ‘poisonous chicken soup’ [naturally] lose their market.”

The Mimeng scandal shows that for social media accounts with a large following, one misstep can have huge consequences. This is something that Papi Jiang, a ‘self-media’ personality who became huge in 2015/2016, also experienced; she was reprimanded for disseminating “vulgar language and content” in April of 2016.

Very similar to Mimeng’s statement, Papi also issued an apology at the time, saying she supported the requirement for correction, and that she would attempt to convey “positive power” (正能量) in the future. “As a media personality,” she said, “I will watch my words and my image.” Papi’s CEO also expressed the company’s willingness to produce “healthier contents.” At the time, her videos were temporarily taken offline.

Meanwhile, some people think that the fact that Mimeng will stay silent for the coming two months is not necessarily a bad thing for the publisher: “They can take an extra long Spring Festival holiday.” As for Mimeng’s Weibo ‘holiday’ – that one is likely to be permanent.

By Gabi Verberg and Manya Koetse

References
-Qin, Amy. 2016. “China’s Viral Idol: Papi Jiang, a Girl Next Door With Attitude.” New York Times, 24 Aug https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/arts/international/chinas-viral-idol-papi-jiang-a-girl-next-door-with-attitude.html [2.6.19].
-Sun, Yanran and Jiang. 2017. “A Study on the Effectiveness of We-Media as a Platform for Intercultural Communication.” In New Media and Chinese Society, Ke Xue & Mingyang Yu (Eds.), 271-284. Singapore: Springer.
-WiC. 2018. “Headline earnings – Zimeiti hunt media profits but they still need to play by the rules.” Week in China, 15 June https://www.weekinchina.com/2018/06/headline-earnings/ [2.6.19].

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Stories that are authored by the What's on Weibo Team are the stories that multiple authors contributed to. Please check the names at the end of the articles to see who the authors are.

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China Digital

From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

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China Digital

Conversations Behind the Wall: Clubhouse App Now Blocked in China

While the Clubhouse app is no longer accessible from within the PRC, conversations continue behind the wall.

Manya Koetse

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The Clubhouse app became a hot topic among web users in mainland China this weekend. On Monday, the platform was no longer accessible from within the PRC.

On Saturday, we posted an article about the surge in popularity of American ‘drop-in audio chat’ social media platform Clubhouse in mainland China.

As conversations about the popular app continued throughout the weekend, the app was no longer accessible from within mainland China on Monday.

Clubhouse describes itself as “a space for casual, drop-in audio conversations—with friends and other interesting people around the world” where you can “go online anytime to chat with the people you follow, or hop in as a listener and hear what others are talking about.”

The app has virtual rooms and events themed around various topics – anything from politics to music – and lets hundreds of members join conversations as moderators, speakers, or listeners.

The Clubhouse app was developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison and ex-Google employee Rohan Seth. It was first launched in April 2020 on iOS only, and is still only accessible through iPhone for users who have an invite.

Before Monday, the Clubhouse app was freely accessible from within China for those people who had an invite, but only if they had access to the non-Chinese Apple store to download the app.

The app was a hot topic on various Chinese social media platforms this weekend. On Weibo, the civilized and open character of the Clubhouse conversations were praised, allowing a broader understanding of issues that otherwise remain untouched or are limited within the Chinese social media sphere.

One Chinese-language virtual room about the Xinjiang camps was joined by hundreds of people on Saturday. But besides the room focused on Xinjiang, there were also other rooms where discussions took place about the status of Hong Kong and about issues such as whether or not (overseas) Chinese are willing to return to the mainland and why.

“It is like a small crack in a window,” one person on Weibo said about Clubhouse, while others already predicted the app would become unavailable from within mainland China soon.

When it finally happened on Monday, the responses on Weibo were mainly those of disappointment. “Bye bye Clubhouse,” some Weibo users wrote, with others expressing their surprise: “What?! It was just popular for two days and it’s already blocked? They move so fast it’s scary.”

“I was active on Clubhouse for two days. I didn’t expect it to be shut down so soon already.”

Although many commenters previously expressed that they expected the app to become unavailable within the PRC, the fact that it was shutdown while it was just exploding online comes as a surprise to some, as various commenters write.

The term ‘Clubhouse’ was also temporarily blocked on Weibo by Monday night Beijing time; over the weekend various hashtags relating to the app made their rounds on Chinese social media, but the hashtag pages were no longer online by Monday evening.

‘Clubhouse’ no longer shows results on social media platform Weibo. Screenshot by What’s on Weibo.

Meanwhile, various Chinese-language rooms on Clubhouse discussed the topic of its disappearance in China.

A room titled “Clubhouse is blocked, and now?” was joined by over a hundred people on Monday night. The room “Clubhouse is blocked” attracted over 3000 participants. These conversations are likely to continue for the time to come, but now they must continue behind the Great Firewall of China.

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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